I love coffee.

I’ve always loved the smell of coffee, but I haven’t always liked how coffee tastes. There was always a disappointing disconnect between the two flavors — I drink coffee for business and I smell it for pleasure.

This all changed in February 2011 when I was on a trip to New York with Mathieu, my manager at Google. He took me to a cafe in Chelsea and bought me a cappuccino. The bearded barista took his time lovingly making the espresso, texturing and foaming the milk, and pouring a broad-leafed rosetta into a warm cup. The result was delicious, and was the closest any drink had come to rendering the aroma of coffee as a liquid that I had ever had — a far cry from the brown wake-up juice I was used to.

I was an instant addict. I went back to Boston and found that I was indignant at cups of coffee that I would have been satisfied with before. What’s more, I was completely disconnected from Boston’s active coffee scene. In one interaction with a cafe owner typical of that period, after receiving an exceptionally bitter cup of coffee, I insisted that a cafe latte should be perfectly smooth, without a hint of bitterness. He said, “Sir, that’s how coffee tastes. If you would like a drink without bitterness, I recommend a drink with caramel syrup.” I responded, “You overextracted the coffee and boiled the milk. If that’s the way you like your coffee, that’s your prerogative as a barista. My prerogative as a customer is to never come back to this cafe again,” and I left.

Eventually I decided I would learn to make coffee myself. Nearly four years later, I still feel like I am at the beginning of understanding the gap between the two flavors. I’ve met a lot of passionate people who love coffee, who taught me a lot and shared many cups of coffee prepared in many different ways. Somehow coffee preparation is still a mysterious enterprise full of rituals that may or may not have an impact on the resulting drink. There are dozens of variables to control, and flavor, aroma, and texture are subjective experiences that are difficult to quantify.

Here’s what I believe about coffee today.

Coffee drinks are a suspension and a solution of molecules that are found in roasted coffee beans in water. When green beans are roasted, they undergo reactions that create molecules that are responsible for a lot of the aromas, colors and flavors of the resulting drink. The main reaction is called the Maillard reaction — it’s one of the two chief non-enzymatic browning reactions in flavor science (the other being caramelization). Roasted beans contain chemicals that having varying levels of solubility in water. Certain chemicals, such as acids, sugars, caffeine, and tannins will readily dissolve in water; on the other hand, oils and other hydrophobic compounds will not dissolve in water.

There are many different methods of preparing coffee; they can be classified by how they deal with low solubility compounds. This is not a judgment, by the way; these different methods (with the possible exception of the first) can be done well or done poorly and yield drinks that are not necessarily better or worse than each other, but are simply different.

  1. They can be ignored (instant coffee, very water soluble).
  2. Accept the low extraction rate, wait a long time (cold brew).
  3. Increase the extraction rate with high temperature (drip coffee).
  4. Increase the extraction rate with high pressure (espresso).
  5. Increase the extraction rate with high agitation (does anyone do this?).

This may not be all there is to it. It seems likely that brewing conditions will cause chemical reactions (assembling or breaking down molecules) beyond merely physically extracting them from the bean, but I don’t know anything about this — it’s only a guess.

Likewise, I have no idea what the chemicals in the beans actually are. I know there are thousands of them, but I can only name a handful.

It seems generally accepted that high solubility compounds are watery and sour and the low solubility compounds are oily and bitter. Many of the variables that affect texture and flavor affect extraction in a simple way. For example, grinding the beans more finely increases extraction rates (since the water will have greater contact with the bean), which will make the drink less sour and more bitter. Similarly, increasing dwell time (the amount of time the grinds are in contact with the water) will extract more low-solubility compounds. Almost every variable that could conceivably affect flavor and texture does so, from how the coffee is roasted and ground all the way to the humidity at the moment it is prepared.

The resulting beverage can be extraordinarily sensitive to these variables. Most notably, a difference in the temperature of the brewing water of less than 1°F (0.5°C) can be the difference between a sour cup and a sweet cup, or between a sweet cup and a bitter cup. Traditional coffee equipment does not have mechanisms for precise temperature control; modern high-end equipment will use tuned control loops (commonly PID) to precisely control the temperature of brewing water.

Experienced baristas are aware that these variables affect flavor, but they may or may not have access to measurement equipment or brewing equipment that gives them enough control to experiment.

Coffee is such a complex beverage; it’s clear we’re at the tip of the iceberg. I’m hoping we can design equipment that is inexpensive enough to give more control of more variables to more people.

More on how we will do this soon.


Dear Internet,

My name is Ali Mohammad and I’m a child of the internet age. I’m 30, which almost makes me a senior citizen online, but I’ve been using computers, the internet, and free software for most of my life (since 1993) and it’s given me all these liberal ideals.

Being online is all about information, and information wants to be free. When I say free, I mean it in both senses of the word (libre and gratis), but with an emphasis on libre — freedom to use information without restriction: to enjoy it, study it, change it, and share it. On the internet, information wants to be free. It’s unnatural to restrict it, and the internet naturally resists such restrictions. We’ve seen this with books, music, movies, software, and ideas.

I resist it as a person. I get frustrated when I see violations of this ideal — when I watch businesses and even entire industries try to profit by restricting information, obstructing the natural instincts of inquisitive people or creating artificial flaws in their devices to establish price discrimination or achieve some business goal. All knowledge belongs to the world and information wants to be free. As an adult and a civil member of human society, I realize that I can’t impose the ideals I believe in on others, however frustrating it might be. I console myself that it’s unnecessary anyway; the advantages of free-flowing information are so massive that I believe everything in our lives that is restricted that can be replaced by a free project or made free in some other way will be.

That’s why media and software are widely available online. The free exchange is often still illegal, but the legal restrictions are becoming more and more ludicrous; an industry might try to profit by legally forbidding Mexicans from breathing Texan air, but such a law is meaningless. Various media industries may dig their heels in and use their clout and experience to slow the tide, but it’s inevitable that their industries will change. The forward-thinking among them are embracing the chance to reinvent information economies and are finding ways to profit from the change.

The free exchange of media and software is only the beginning. Recently we’ve started seeing these exchanges appear for objects that can be printed using rapid prototyping machinery, such as 3D printers or (somewhat less often) laser-cutters and other CNC machinery. As these tools become more available and the software to design objects becomes more accessible, design files are proliferating.

We want to take part in this movement. Our goal is to produce high-quality, parametric components and devices that can be inexpensively produced from widely available parts using widely available machines and methods.

We believe in this so strongly that we will be releasing details for complete products that are as good or better than state-of-the-art proprietary devices completely for free under permissive licenses. Despite our skill and experience, we believe that our designs will improve more rapidly via iteration from the community than we could possibly hope they would in a secret lab.

I call this ideal simpliqity.

I realize it’s an ideal. Traditional business people might laugh at us since we’re going to give away all our secrets, all our best ideas will be public knowledge and we will be giving up almost all hope of profiting. We don’t care. We know simpliqity is an ideal, but it’s an ideal we believe in and we are willing to sacrifice money and comfort for this ideal in the hopes of benefiting the world.

I personally have benefited enormously from my predecessors. If academics were guarded about their secret knowledge, I would never have become a scholar. If Richard Stallman hadn’t started the free software movement and made projects like gcc possible, I may never have learned to code. If Inkscape wasn’t free, I might never have learned anything about 2D design and, by extension, laser-cutting and CNC machining. The best things in life were given to me without restriction by people who were wise enough and kind enough to simply want to better the world by sharing what they had with me. I want to be like my benefactors and teachers and friends. I want to give back.

We’re starting with a coffee machine. Why coffee? The answer will come in a future post.

— alawi